In recognition of World Mental Health Day, DarkOwl is excited to announce the initiation of the “Mental Health Strategies for OSINT Professionals” (MHS4OSINT) Project, aiming to provide OSINT professionals strategies to reduce the mental health impact of exposure to distressing content in their work.
Most individuals report experiencing stress in the workplace – 94%, according to the American Institute of Stress. However, OSINT analysts (such as those involved in anti-human trafficking efforts or dark web research) are routinely exposed to subject matter and content that an average person does not willfully engage with when navigating online spaces. Exposure to “distressing content” may result in vicarious trauma which in turn leads to an array of negative mental health outcomes.
Vicarious, or secondary in some literature, trauma has competing definitions. For the purpose of this project, we will adopt a more general definition from Hannah Ellis at Bellingcat: “mental distress that is experienced as an outcome of interacting with graphic online media.” Vicarious trauma is thought to occur when exposed to what we will refer to as distressing content, or content that elicits negative responses from users upon exposure. The nature of distressing content is highly varied and includes (but is not limited to) war footage, gore, CSAM, extreme ideology, X-rated content, among others. Further, this content is not limited to only photos or videos; sounds, imagery, or extreme rhetoric is thought to also invoke vicarious trauma.
The toll of vicarious trauma is thought to be cumulative over time. Repeated, frequent exposure to such materials adds up, and this exposure cannot be undone; in other words, it’s not possible to “unsee” something once exposed to it. This can contribute to multiple negative mental health outcomes, such as analyst burnout. Burnout is, of course, a poor outcome for the analyst themselves, but also impacts the long-term health of OSINT as a profession and is economically impactful for employers and organizations who rely on OSINT work. Other professionals that frequently experience vicarious trauma, such as 911 operators and journalists in sensitive areas, typically have access to plentiful resources to combat the negative effects of exposure to distressing content. OSINT professionals however do not have a centralized repository of resources dedicated to combating burnout and other negative outcomes (though some excellent individual materials exist, such as the 2 previously linked Bellingcat articles). Further, advice from individual OSINT professionals on reducing burnout may be differentially effective; a strategy used by one OSINT analyst to reduce burnout may not be impactful for another, or the variances in reduction may vary depending on the nature of the distressing content. This project seeks to help address these issues in the OSINT community.
The Mental Health Strategies for OSINT Professionals Project (MSH4OSINT) is a crowd-sourced, data driven project aimed at collecting, validating, categorizing, and distributing mental health strategies freely for the OSINT community.
Researchers on this project aim to collect Strategies (specific actions, behaviors, or modifications of belief that will lessen the negative impacts of vicarious trauma when exposed to distressing content) from a wide variety of OSINT practitioners and validate their effectiveness using empirical evidence. Once validated, Strategies will then be categorized using qualitative research methodology and distributed to the OSINT community via DarkOwl’s website, presentations at conferences, social media, and other typical ways of reaching OSINT professionals.
These strategies will be freely accessible and accessing the strategies (as well as contributing to the project) is anonymous. Note that these strategies are not medical advice nor intended as a replacement for professional therapy or other medical interventions. It is also unlikely that all strategies, even when empirically validated, will be impactful, thus we encourage trying out strategies from numerous categories.
Though decidedly not an academic project, this project endeavors to follow sound academic principles and methodology to ensure the highest likelihood of success at reducing burnout.
The first phase of the MHS4OSINT project is data collection of strategies used by OSINT professionals. This will be done via an anonymous self-administered online survey, hosted here. Data collection will be ongoing and Strategies will be evaluated as they are submitted.
Once data is collected, it will be cleaned and enter the validation step. This project will only put forth strategies that have empirical backing (though we invite contributors to include ALL strategies used). Project researchers will seek out literature to demonstrate the efficacy of a submitted strategy and include that source with the suggested Strategy. Strategies with no evidence of success at improving mental health outcomes will not be moved on to the categorization step.
Upon validation, Strategies will then be categorized using qualitative research methods. As we are in the very early stages of data collection (and the fact the data should derive the categories), permanent “categories” are yet undefined and are very likely to change. However, some possible categories we may see from the data include:
Once a considerable amount of data is collected, validated, and categorized, we will then distribute Strategies for the community via future blog content, social media, and conference presentations. As more data is collected, ongoing updates will be made to the Strategies and their categories, with the aim to have a large repository of Strategies that may prove effective at reducing burnout regardless of the type of distressing content OSINT professionals are exposed to.
If you’re an OSINT professional that would like to offer Strategies you use to reduce burnout, we would love your (anonymous) input! The entire success and impact of this project hinges on the collection of quality data from the OSINT community. Submit your strategy. We will also be at OSMOSISCon in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 15-17, 2023, detailing some of the very preliminary findings from the project.